What We Learned in the Pandemic

I write this cautiously as the Pandemic is not over. But through the nearly 5 months that we have experienced this cataclysmic change in our lives that we owe to COVID-19, there is much that we have learned. 

Before the Pandemic, there was a great deal of concern about lack of engagement, and the dreaded “burnout” that attendings, fellows, residents, medical students and even premeds were experiencing in the pursuit of medical careers. After the Pandemic started, we learned that all these factions had a previously unknown gear that they could activate, one that was selfless, courageous, committed and yes–gritty. 

We could step up and think outside of ourselves. We could give up doing our chosen specialty and tend to the sick in different ways. We could do this unflinchingly and with 100% engagement. We did this without coaching or courses or simulation. We did it because the sense of duty and dedication was within us–frequently untapped before–and easily summoned when the chips were down. The medical community as a whole became heroic. Allied health professionals and docs of different specialties worked together seamlessly and collaboratively. 

And because of the inspiration that the medical community’s cohesiveness and sacrifice provided the public, that very public did its part to try to help us by following the rules of sheltering in place, maintaining physical social distancing, performing hand hygiene and wearing masks. They did this so that we, the medical providers, would not get overwhelmed. They sent us PPE, food, messages of encouragement and volunteered for work in homeless shelters, field hospitals and delivering meals to the quarantined. 

In short, it took the Pandemic to reveal the resilience and grit and engagement that was within us all along, features that could not be turned on with simulations, courses, or lectures. We had it within us because that is why we pursued this field of endeavor- to help the sick and heal the world. I am not saying we were intrinsically great. Greatness has nothing to do with this. Admiral Bull Halsey, hero of the Pacific Theater in WWII, famously said. “There aren’t any great men. There are just great challenges that ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet.”  But we as a profession rose to the challenge and came through the other end stronger, wiser and tougher than we ever knew we could be. 

Moving forward, we face two main challenges as I see it. One is how to maintain this newfound level of engagement and enthusiasm as we return to a post-Pandemic medical world. The other is to how to make use of the new found respect we have earned within our society to point our medical system to fixing our woefully inadequate public health system which has long toiled thanklessly on the soft underbelly of the Medical System–the community of color, the poor, the elderly, the homeless–without the resources to provide preventive care. Can we muster internal support for the shift away from rescue care to preventive care? Can we advocate successfully for the changes the WE know must be made? How much better off as a society would we have been if we had spent more time preparing for pandemics and dealing with climate change and providing better access to health care/insurance coverage than doing E-Learning for you and courses on how to be respectful? I will leave you all to answer. 

But in the meantime I would like to take a moment to thank you all as we prepare for a new incoming med school class and new academic year for the amazing work and exemplary leadership you have all displayed in every facet of your Pandemic response. You have done our Medical School/ System and our Community proud. Best of luck to you in the future. Hold on to the spark that you have demonstrated burns within you all. 

– Michael Hirsh

Michael Hirsh, MD is the the Medical Director for the Department of Public Health for the City of Worcester and six surrounding towns. He is a pediatric surgeon and Director of the Pediatric Trauma and Injury Prevention Program at UMass Memorial Medical Center. He serves as the Assistant Vice Provost for Health and Wellness Promotion for the three graduate schools within the School of Medicine.


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